Emotional Intimacy and Give Me Space

Intimacy—you can't live with it, you can't live without it.

But the truth is that you really can. You can live with it and you can live without it. Relationship therapists have a bias that indeed, you're better off WITH emotional intimacy, than WITHOUT IT. It's a standard of living thing.

We have to begin with psychological space. Everyone has a personal need for psychological space. This is the place where we think, read, write, paint, work (if we're lucky and our work requires our undivided attention), practice our skills, fantasize, and play.

Even invading someone's silly game of Spider is invading his or her personal space. So you can imagine that if there is a disparity, if two people have very different needs for the amount of personal space they need, how that can make for problems in the relationship.

An extreme need for personal space is psychosis. People who are labeled psychotic have a tremendous need for psychological space. They're entire world is preferably private. We'll discuss that more in my chapter on psychosis. That's just the extreme. Most of us aren't there, and frankly, it's not nice to call someone psychotic. Psychosis is serious business. So if your partner needs a lot of psychological space, don't call him/her psychotic. Please.

But do tell him or her that you sometimes feel alone or abandoned.

Usually couples start out their relationship needing about the same amount of psychological space. But that often changes over time. For example, one may go back to school or get a more time-intensive job, or a parent or child may get sick, requiring not only our emotional resources, but time.

Although I'm defining psychological space as essentially alone time, time in general can be a problem in relationships. If one partner goes back to school, not only is he or she thinking about school, but school requires time away. So psychological space and time, real time away from a partner can both serve as intimacy busters.

What to do, what to do.

It can be very complicated. A partner who wants more attention and time from the other may complain that the other: always has to be with other people, is always running over to help someone else, always has to go out on the weekends, is always talking on the phone, never wants to go to bed until it's the end the day and both are exhausted, is always at the computer, is always last on the list etc.

Is this a crime to complain about not getting enough time from your partner? Does it make you overly dependent?

I'm thinking not. But there is a middle ground.

A novice therapist will look a couple straight in the eyes (not easy, four eyes staring you down, hanging on your every word) and say, Well this is easy. Each of you do your thing and then the two of you get together at the end of the day, not too late, of course, and compare notes and hang out together and have sex.

Or, to make it simpler and even less effective, perhaps a novice therapist will press the partner who wants more intimacy and time to get a hobby, or as we say in the biz, individuate, grow.

Rather than focus on helping the couple become more intimate, such a doc may unwittingly increase the psychological space and time apart by encouraging the one who is less busy to become more busy, more self-actualized. You go to school. You grow.

You get a life, the therapist tells the one who wants more intimacy, which is fine, except that it doesn't solve the problem.

Telling the partner with the greater need for intimacy to stuff that need, sublimate it and fill life up with other people and things is not the solution to the relationship problem. In the short run, yes, it helps, but not in the long run for many reasons that we'll talk about another time.

Suffice it to say that needing more intimacy and getting more intimacy is a good thing and bodes well for a future.

When we're young, we may need less intimacy (more sex, maybe, but sometimes less from one another emotionally). We're stronger, better looking, and hopefully haven't suffered many financial, physical, or emotional hardships.

As we age, however, the challenges of life begin to wear on us. We become less defended, more vulnerable. If we don't need physical holding when we are young, we may very well need it sooner than we think, and having a partner becomes a very, very good thing, a real gift. Lonely people already know this.

Therefore I push couples to work on being close, not at the expense, necessarily, of becoming better individuated people. Personal growth is still a good thing, and we should do that anyway, develop interests that make us happy, add to our sense of self with experiences and skills. Having things that we can say that we do or know is the natural way to stay happy.

Personal growth shouldn't have to detract from our intimacy with a partner, however. Intimacy is really all about quality, not quantity. Yet there's no question, to be emotionally intimate, the partner who needs more personal space does have to suck it up and Be There emotionally and psychologically for the partner who needs more intimacy. And that will take time.

It doesn't take that much time, however, to sincerely communicate love, affection and admiration. And to share and listen to another's sharing.

Having sex doesn't cut it, by the way, as a replacement for emotional intimacy. Hugging, gazing thoughtfully into one another's eyes, and listening are the emotionally intimate behaviors we're talking about.

And this doc feels that those of us who NEED emotional intimacy are actually more highly evolved. It says we care about others. We want to listen and we want to hear. It's a pretty big deal.

Copyright 2006, TherapyDoc


Karma said…
This is an interesting thing to think about. I'm not sure, but wouldn't it be better if both in the couple compromised so that the one needing more intimacy could get that need filled in a way that still allowed for the one needing more space to have space for school or separate friends or whatever comes up?
therapydoc said…
For sure. It's not all or none. This afternoon I worked with a couple and this exact thing came up.

She said, All you have to do is say I miss you once in awhile. That would do it for me..
Anonymous said…
read this one this morning...very timely. I am one of those souls who does need lots of emmotional intimacy...and have been blessed w/ a wife who while not completely on the same page as me, doesn't throw it in my face and works as hard to make our relationship healthy as I.
She's away for two weeks helping out w/ a new grandchild...It started out fine on the home front....a little space and change of pace..approach it like a challenge...about one week into it, I had a rough night. I've never heard of this before, but I felt like I was going through some type of emotional withdrawal..next morning...I was fine. Heard a good radio program the next day about couples praying together as part of their relationship (we do-90% of the time, especially in the morning..nothing fancy just a way to bring our kids and our lives before God on a regular basis together)....well, I suggested we could still pray together over the phone...cause as you said in this post or elsewhere...it's not just the physical component that cultivates intimacy. I smiled when you said you felt those with a higher need for emotional intimacy are more highly evolved,,,that would def. be me :-)
Here is something I wrote the other night when I was in the midst of that "craziness" I felt:

therapydoc said…
Thanks for these thoughts. But the link didn't work for me. I'll try another time.
I was very encouraged to find this site. I wanted to thank you for this special read. I definitely savored every little bit of it and I have you bookmarked to check out new stuff you post.


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